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Many forms of doing: a surprising source for pluralism about agency

Since roughly the middle of the last century, there has been a thriving philosophical debate about the nature of action. What is it that makes us agents rather than patients? What makes us responsible for the things that we do rather than the things that happen to us? And what kinds of capacities do such agents have to have to bear different kinds of responsibility – is it enough just to have desires of which one is aware, or does one have to be able to choose between them, or does one further have to be able to judge those desires by principles anyone could share? The thread that generally holds this discussion together is the idea that whatever the correct answers are to these questions, they are the correct answers for all agents; there is fundamentally only one form of agency. But what if this assumption were wrong, though wrong in an instructive and tractable way? What if there were multiple forms of agency in human life, but not so many that they couldn’t be identified and related to each other in visible and significant ways? Surprisingly (given his reputation as the purveyor of identities that swallow up all differences), it turns out that Hegel has such a pluralistic philosophy of action.

Specifically (and this is not so surprising, of course), Hegel thinks that there are three: one that is oriented by specific desires deeply embedded in the local contexts of life; one that is more goal-directed, seeking out new and wider contexts when necessary to provide better resources for achieving those goals; and one that commits itself to achieving the goal of all goals – the “Good” – through putting its shoulder to the wheel of the larger institutions that attempt to promote and balance the satisfaction of different desires and achievement of different goals.

“The Philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel”, by Jakob Schlesinger. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

And, Hegel thinks, with each of these different ways of practically orienting oneself to the world comes a different fundamental value. The desire-based form of agency fundamentally values security, a kind of right to be left alone in those local contexts in which those desires have their fullest strength and validity. The goal-based form of agency fundamentally values welfare, understood in a formal sense as the achievement of goals. And we have already seen the relevant value for the third form – the Good itself, understood as a state in which rights claims to security and welfare claims to support are made consistent with each other in a global normative distribution.

Hegel calls these three different ways of being an agent different forms of accountability (Zurechnungsfähigkeit). This means at least two related things. First, it means that they are different ways we have of holding ourselves and each other responsible. Hegel thinks that participants in the desire-based form hold themselves and each other responsible only for consequences that actually cambe about and that they actually foresaw; participants in the goal-based form hold themselves and each other responsible for the kinds of consequences that usually attach to the essential type of the action in question; but participants aiming at the Good hold themselves and each other for the whole network of consequences and all effects on rights and welfare.

Second, this means that the three forms of agency are different ways to be somebody recognizable, visible, and worthy of respect in both public and private life. For Hegel, this meaning was tied to social types: farmers and soldiers, artisans and workers, civil servants and merchants. It would be too hard to “be somebody” just by, e.g., following one’s desires. One needs images, narratives, exemplars and other forms organized by social types to mediate the requisite recognition.

The question for contemporary philosophers of action is: are there still a tractable number of ways of acting, and is there sufficient connection with social types sufficient to make any of this visible? For one great benefit of such pluralism would be that it would allow us to tell when we were talking past each other or being unreasonable in our expectations of each other as a result of performing or participating in different forms of agency, and a second great benefit would be our ability to recognize ourselves and each other as (at least occasionally) succeeding at being somebody who counts in these relevantly different ways. But without visibility and a tractable number, these benefits are lost.

Featured image credit: “Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) mit Studenten. Lithographie”, from Das Wissen des 20.Jahrhunderts. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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